Thursday, 17 April 2014

It's About Service

Today is Holy Thursday, and I am at the blow-my-nose-every-45 seconds stage of my cold. I have overseas guests arriving in three hours, a paper on the Theology of Woman to write, and Holy Thursday Mass an hour-and-a-half by bus away. This is a bad day to feel this bad.

However, like real mothers, I dragged myself from my bed of pain to do what housework is necessary, and like women with 9-to-5 jobs, I will get down to writing my paper. What I am doing now is service that nobody has asked me (directly) to do but nevertheless ought to be done, which is to address Catholic Singles and Other Singles of Good Will about the Single Life from a Catholic perspective.

On Holy Thursday there is attached to Mass an optional service in which a priest washes the feet of twelve other priests or, lacking that many priests, twelve appropriate priest stand-ins. Most fittingly, those would be the "viri" demanded by rubrics, but some of us are just happy if the feminae selectae remember not to wear pantyhose. Incidentally, there is a fashion for women lay ministers to wash feet, too. My nose hurts too much to go on about what THAT does to theology of the ordained priesthood.

At any rate the contemporary, un-traditional and confusing involvement of laity is supposed to remind us that all Christians are called to service, which actually I can remember without watching a woman in the sanctuary whipping off her pantyhose as an alb-covered woman with a sponge waits politely. Service is not about rituals most fittingly done by and for priests but about being truly helpful. If stuck, see the corporal works of mercy and the spiritual works of mercy.

But service is more than individual acts. It's about a shared way of life. It is about serving without expectation of human reward, serving for God's sake, or for humanity's sake, or serving's sake, no matter what your state in life or your chosen profession. If you are a salaried or by-the-hour professional server, paid for your service, you may not have enough time or energy to experience the true joy of Christian service, which would be unfortunate.

Mysteriously, there is something spiritually wrong with being paid for Christian service. I don't know exactly why it is so, but it is so. What is way better is being gratuitously rewarded, either in money or something else, for Christian service. Priests in my hometown are usually financially dependent on their bishop (and probably helped out by their families ), sometimes working around the clock, snatching sleep when they can, seven days a week. I don't think of them as working for a paycheque, exactly. Meanwhile, nobody pays mothers and fathers for being generous mothers and fathers, or childless marrieds for being substitute mothers and fathers, or singles for being generous with their time and talent on behalf of the community.

Sometimes these people aren't even thanked, although you may recall that of the ten lepers miraculously cured by Our Lord, only one went back to thank Him. And if nine people miraculously cured from a dread disease forget to thank the Son of God Himself, I guess it is understandable when someone forgets to say "Thank you" to me or his mom.

The Lord seems to expect us to do service for people who can never give us anything in return (and may forget to say thank you). I am reminded of His advice to one of His hosts "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous" (Luke 14:12-14). The emphasis here is that you profit from not being materially rewarded. And I notice that Our Lord suggested a service His host enjoyed and was good at--hosting.

I host a bit, and the good thing about opening your home to foreign students (if you do) is that almost all students are at least cash poor and because their homes are in foreign lands, it is less likely that they will have the chance to open their homes to you. Of course, it is very nice when they do, but you don't expect it, and it doesn't matter. Meanwhile, the Poles have a saying that I really love--"Guest in the house, God in the house." I think this is literally true in some mystical way.

Anyway, I am not feeling so brainy, thanks to my cold, so I will drag myself back to the point of this post and say that Single Christians are equal in dignity to Married Christians or Consecrated Christians in that Singles are equally called to service. Priests are always telling lonely bored Singles that the way to cheer up is to serve others, and I am not surprised if the Singles roll their eyes around the minute the priest's back is turned. I think I probably did. However, this actually turns out to be TRUE.

One of the intolerable sufferings of my PhD years was that I couldn't find any opportunities to serve; I had served a lot during my M.Div., and I really missed it. However, I finally hit on the strange notion of writing a blog for Singles, and it changed my whole life, and directly or indirectly brought me everything I have achieved or been given in the past seven years, minus my tiny nephew and niece (of course). So much reward for something that--let's face it--nobody asked me to do or paid me for. (Thanks, by the way, to anyone who ever sent me a donation over PayPal, which I no longer use, as it proved unworkable.) It's really amazing.

Christian service is voluntary and not on a cash-per-hour basis. Ideally, the service you do is something that you are good at and enjoy. Philosopher Simone Weil went to tremendous lengths to serve her countrymen long before she became a Christian, most effectively by giving them free night classes that helped them pass exams to get better jobs. Blessed Natalia Tułasiewicz went voluntarily into what was for other Poles forced labour in Nazi Germany so as to minister to them spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. Servant of God Dorothy Day wrote and protested on behalf of the poor, clothed them, listened to them, and made them coffee and soup. And what did all these ladies have in common? They enjoyed their form of service, even though Weil was killed (in part) by overwork and Blessed Natalia by the Nazis.

They were also all unmarried non-nuns. And they all flew in the face of the idea that you shouldn't do something skilled and worth something to others unless you are being paid for it. It is a beautiful irony that Blessed Natalia went voluntarily into forced labour in Germany--so that she could carry out an illegal (and unpaid) ministry among the forced labourers. Yet Simone Weil and Dorothy Day served by demanding better pay and better work conditions for workers.

Paid work and Christian service: two separate things. How nurses have the time to do both is a puzzle, but I am sure many must. And I hope whatever they are doing as unpaid service is something they deeply enjoy: motherhood, for example.

Update: To be fair to American Catholics women who have volunteered to have, or been pressured into having, their feet washed this evening, here is what the American bishops have to say about it. If I were a priest, however, I would get twelve men involved in lay ministries of whatever kind--choir, altar service, lectors, hockey team coaching--stuff them in cassocks and albs, and wash THEIR feet, as an example to little boys of how church is not just for one man and a whole lotta women.

When he was here, my eldest nephew was mesmerized by Mass, and I don't think it was the Latin. Nooooooo. I think it was because everyone on the altar was male and dressed properly. Just saying.


Anonymous said...

At our parish, instead of 12 people having their feet washed, everyone is invited to come and wash their own hands in a communal bowl. I choose not to go. Apart from how unhygienic it is I just can't get passed the pontious pilot associations......

Aussie girl in NZ

Seraphic said...

Ah ha ha! Such CREATIVITY! And what is the message of washing one's own hands, anyway? The 21st century equivalent of foot washing is probably shining shoes. If we need to be all modern, why not do that?

Julia said...

Aussie Girl, I sense (perhaps quite wrongly) that that sort of thing is pretty common in New Zealand. Is that true?

Heather in Toronto said...

Wow, that's wacky.

We didn't have albs or cassocks, but we did have proper foot-washing of the actually male viri, most of whom I recognized as ushers, lectors, the guy who does a lot of the day to day handyman stuff, etc.

Mira said...

This is an amazing post.

Thank you for your service to us all!

Happy Easter to you and your family!

Anonymous said...

Yes Julia, our parish is actually one of the better ones. It is pretty awful here. Not really many options and no EF in Wellington. But the SSPX church in our suburb is bursting at the seams and has vocations too. We have churches closing as there are not enough priests. Please pray for us.

Aussie Girl in NZ

Seraphic said...

Heather, in the absence of twelve handy priests, that sounds ideal!

The footwashing thing... It's supposed to be a reminder to the footwashed that they must go out and serve others "like this". Women don't need the reminder; it's inborn-unless, of course, it's rooted out of us.

Same deal for liturgy. Women (with St. John) were at the foot of the cross; in the garden the disciples ran away. Every effort must be made to keep men active in the life of the Church. If women take the roles at church men should be doing, then men will be less likely to do them. Unless we are actively discouraged and taught to be disgusted with our Christian traditions, we women will instinctively be faithful and keep on going to church. But boys and men need to be told, "You are NEEDED at church. There are roles only you as men can fulfill."
Paradoxically women actually do men a kindness when we stay out of the sanctuary and encourage other women to stay out of the sanctuary. We can serve in other ways, and very often do: we need to retreat a little, so that men can and will do the work they are called to do instead of sitting back and letting the women do everything, mistaking what they SHOULD be doing as "women's stuff."

Mira said...

This is an amazing post.

Thank you for your service!

Happy Easter to you, your family and your readers!

Sheila said...

This post is really fitting for a conversation I was having with a friend the other day. We were talking about how hard motherhood is, especially for Catholics, seeing as we often wind up having so very many kids. One of us asked, "Why would anyone choose this? After all, it's incredibly hard work for no pay and often not much thanks."

The answer I finally came up with is, as Catholics, we ALL are supposed to be doing hard work for little reward ... in fact, the world only functions when everyone is willing to do things for others without being repaid. The only thing unfair about it is that so many people don't do their share. Obviously being a mother is much harder if the dad never does anything, your mother never takes the kids for an afternoon, and everyone you meet is rude to you for taking your kids out in public. And what really brings the envy (one of my principle vices, and I suspect a struggle for many women) is watching OTHER people spend their time relaxing, partying, eating what they want, sleeping when they want, and doing nothing they didn't choose and nothing they aren't paid for. But this isn't a superior existence -- it's a serviceless existence. It might be easier, but it isn't better.

I think I disagree with you about nurses having to do service in addition their jobs. I think service is service whether or not it's your fulltime occupation. Nurses don't do it for the money! There are plenty of other jobs that can make money, but the decision to take on a job that will demand that much of you is something you only do out of service. Certainly when I chose to go into teaching, that was very much on my mind -- I saw it as a calling, and the pay I received was just the school giving me money to live on so that I could dedicate all my time to that calling. I couldn't have done it fulltime if they hadn't paid me! Kind of like how nuns have their needs provided for, and how I have a grocery budget even though I don't earn a salary myself.

And anyway, if you have one of those jobs, you are guaranteed to have plenty of opportunities to go above and beyond what you're paid for. You don't *have* to hold the hands of the dying if you're a nurse or listen to the existential angst of a student if you're a teacher. It isn't what you draw a paycheck for, but you should still do it.